Heino Falcke Zwarte Gat

Inspiring innovator: Heino Falcke wants to prevent knowledge from disappearing down a black hole

It was global news: in April 2019, the first ever photograph of a black hole was presented during a press conference in Brussels. Heino Falcke, professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at the Radboud University, played a crucial part in capturing the photo. In doing so, a 20-year old dream was finally realised. “It just goes to show: a small idea can create quite a stir.

We all wanted to achieve something and could only do so together. We brought together scientists from Europe as well as Asia, Australia, North and Latin America.

Collaboration as a key to success

The pioneering publication took years of preparatory research and required cross-border collaboration between eight of the best radio telescopes in the world. “We pulled it off because we brought together scientists from Europe as well as Asia, Australia, North and Latin America. We all wanted to achieve something and could only do so together. Everyone felt that it was an important task and supported our shared vision.”

That’s also why differences in opinion or approach didn’t create problems for the project. They sometimes even proved to be of added value. “As we were driven by the same aim, differences were put aside and sometimes utilised. This occasionally made the collaboration competitive. Which would help us to look at ourselves critically. That was hugely important, as we were scrutinised by colleagues from all over the world. Whenever they would catch us making a mistake, we were intensely criticised. We needed to be our own worst critics.”

A telescope that’s larger than Earth itself

The photograph of the black hole is still quite blurry. Heino Falcke believes we can do better. “We need the entire world and the newest gear to do so. Africa has not been part of our cross-border collaboration so far. That means we’re missing an entire continent and you can see that in the picture.”

In order to take a crystal-clear photograph, the professor wants to take operations into space, using a network of telescopes that, together, are larger than Earth itself. As these would be orbiting the Earth, you would be able to look in all directions, over various distances. An additional advantage of a space telescope is that weather conditions are taken out of the equation. “You would be able to take a near-perfect photo”, he told national television station NPO 1 earlier. Together with the European space agency ESA, Falcke has calculated that such a space telescope would be possible. It might take ten  twenty years, however, as everything still has to be put in motion (including the funding for such a project).

These innovations were not created through strategically planned activities, but because of curiosity. Inspired and smart scientists are given creative license to think big.

Creative license required for innovations

Through his research, Heino Falcke wants to discover the secrets of the universe and physics.  This effort also often leads to the creation of new technologies that can be applied to other areas. The image-processing algorithms that are used in physics, can for instance also be used for human computer tomography (CT scans).

An old graduate student of the professor is currently leading a software group in the Radboudumc that aims to improve this type of program. In collaboration with colleagues from the neuroscience department, efforts are even being made to see if astronomical radio technology can be used to monitor at a distance the location and condition of individuals suffering from dementia. “These innovations were not created through strategically planned activities, but because of curiosity. Inspired and smart scientists are given creative license to think big.”

It’s good for us to realise that we’re only a small planet in a large universe. That realisation can help us move towards a more sustainable planet.

By conducting this type of research, Falcke wants to help and inspire others to extend the boundaries of knowledge and discover innovations. “Daring to dream big is important for anyone. We need that kind of energy to feed our curiosity and acquire knowledge. It allows us to stimulate a mind that wants to go further and give its all to achieve a better, more sustainable way of life. The amazing thing is that there’s still so much to discover, even apart from technology. Think of existential questions and understanding our tiny part of space. It’s good for us to realise that we’re only a small planet in a large universe. That realisation can help us move towards a more sustainable planet. There are no other planets that are easy for us to reach. Our Earth is all we have at the moment. We should take good care of it.”

Knowledge only exists if it is shared

Falcke is fascinated by astronomy and outer space, and he loves sharing his discoveries. As a scientist, he has the privilege to see extraordinary things and he feels obliged to talk about his experiences, so that everyone can share in them. After all, quality science is only possible in a society that cherishes knowledge.

“We are paid by society, so this is my way of giving back. Furthermore, we are ensuring that the acquired knowledge doesn’t disappear down a black hole; it is being distributed instead. Knowledge only exists if it is shared. In doing so, we are also showcasing our region’s scientific prowess. We should be proud of the fact that the first photograph of a black hole was developed at the Radboud University. This achievement was made possible with large international players, such as Harvard. But we even took the wheel a couple of times. It just goes to show: a small idea can create quite a stir. Let’s enjoy this breakthrough.”

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